A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Alex: What we were after now was the old surprise visit. That was a real kick and good for laughs and lashings of the old ultraviolent.
From: A Clockwork Orange
Somewhere along the way as I was growing, violence took a wrong turn in the media. Movies, TV, print; all began to show more graphic violence. I don’t know what the starting point was, or when; I just know that it started getting more detailed, more bloody. Of course, there were horror movies, slasher types that were full of gaudy special effects and makeup, but somewhere along the way, the technology got really good, and bloodletting began in full swing. For a highly sensing boy, I saw this is as a turnoff. What happened to the days, when a gunshot went off, there was a quick cut and a dead body laid on the ground? Sometimes with blood, sometimes without. I got the message; the character was dead, I didn’t need to see him bleed out, to make that point. The excessive reliance on violence for dramatic conflict seems like lazy writing to me. The subtlety of death and dying died, and so did a certain naivete upon the viewing public.
Modeling of violence in the media can desensitize us all into the acceptance of violence or at least aggression as an acceptable method for resolving egregious problems or for seeking justice. Whether it is an endless war against perceived enemies, capital punishment as a means of justice or at a personal level arming oneself to the teeth, to protect against “bad guys.”
I’m not interested in playing video games, but nowadays watching almost any historical drama on television or in films is rife with realistic and I could argue hyper-real blood and guts, as villains are slain to exact justice. One can simply no longer turn away from the violence and even as adults, the visceral and subtle unconscious effects alter all of us.
There have been many studies over the years vilifying the effects of passively watching violence in the media. The National Institute of Mental Health found that children watching violent media may become desensitized to other’s pain and suffering , may become more fearful and may be more likely to behave in aggressive and harmful ways to others. It has even been suggested that this learned behavior may follow into adulthood. Violent video games have a similar effect. Ninety-eight percent of video games contain violence and since 97% of adolescents play video games the reach of violent modeling goes way beyond Saturday morning cartoons.
Violence is found in music, YouTube, radio, on cell phones, the internet and now especially in social media. This constant exposure to aggression creates aggressive thoughts and can produce less empathy towards others. The focus of aggression is the intent to harm another, where the other is looking to avoid this harm. It takes many forms: relational aggression, i.e., spreading harmful rumors; cyber-aggression via electronic messages; and, verbal aggression. With over 42.5 aggressive acts per hour on television and with a clear increase in violence in movies over the last 40 years, it is no wonder that the effect culturally on children is growing. These children, of course, grow up to be adults. When these acts of aggression take a more severe form, we are looking at violent actions.
Now, I know many of you may be saying, well, all these studies have not been able to prove long-term effects or that many of the studies are flawed or invalid. Some would even argue that viewing violence has a cathartic effect on aggression. Yet, there are no studies showing this to be true. It is very difficult, if not ethically impossible to construct a study in which a cause and effect relationship can be established by watching violent media with behavior in which murder or violence is the end result of the study.
Yet, it is clear we can measure arousal rates when watching violent media, heart rate, respiration, and higher blood pressure. In fact, there have been MRI (magnetic resonance imagery) studies where noticeable differences in brain activity have been shown after just one week of watching violent video games. Other studies have noted short and long-term effects associated with this video violence. Primary among the short-term effects have been the arousal via emotional stimulation, which causes a visceral response. And, of course, mimicry, which causes the viewer to imitate behavior watched, in a less violent, but nonetheless aggressive way – generally more aggressive thoughts.
The long-term effects may affect observational learning skills and alter emotional state, thought schemas, normative beliefs about violence and executable behavior scripts. It may cause desensitization with increased exposure, aggressive behavior, bullying, increased fears, depression, nightmares, and other sleep disturbances. The key to all of this is repetition. Repeating the viewing, especially with video gaming, where repetition increases skill level, increases the retention and acceptance of violence as a means to an end.
This clearly affects children and adults. The continuous bombardment of violence or aggressive behavior, especially with the actions of hero characters, models that the world is a dangerous place and that justice is only served by righteous indignation, often in violent form. Because this is constantly presented as reality via the media, the unconscious mind, not the greatest at distinguishing reality from fiction learns that violence, if not honorable, is at least tolerable to settle injustices.
How does violence in the media effect HSPs and in particular HSMs? Why would we watch it, if it is offensive and abhorrent to our sensibilities? I personally find excessive violence in film or television to be distracting to the story. It creates a strong visceral reaction, a shock if you will, that I feel in my body. I never get sick to the stomach, but feel a slight, steady revulsion to excessive violence, even knowing that it’s not real. If it is severe enough, I will turn my head, but as of late, I force myself to bear through it. It’s over soon enough, but the story is altered for me. Even with plot justification for the violence, I tend to be tenser watching the remainder, as if waiting for someone to jump out from behind me, to startle me. Gratuitous violence is just that – plugged into storylines at regular intervals to give the mind and body a shock. It sells tickets.
My larger concern is what is all of this violence doing to us as a culture? Is it altering the way our brains perceive violence? I mean, one could argue that we have always been violent, aggressive creatures. But, at what point do we rise above our baser instincts and evolve, moving past violence. If it is affecting us all, does it mean we HSPs are being altered along with the rest of humanity?
Why does violence appeal to us? Is it like sex, just a primal force of nature that our higher level cognitive powers haven’t learned to deal with. It seems that we crave violence, like sex, drugs and rock and roll. But, unlike sex, aggression is not a drive in humans. Sure there might have been evolutionary reasons for aggressive behavior to protect territory, but is it really necessary now? Perhaps, we see violence as a prelude to death. Pushed and pulled, drawing us in towards our warlike nature.
In the U.S. alone child abuse occurs about every 10 seconds. We have the highest rates of youth homicides and suicides in the industrialized world. School shootings and mass shootings have sadly become commonplace. Americans are more than seven times as likely to be murdered than in the largest industrialized countries. We spend more of our tax revenue on defense, weapons, and wars than all countries combined. We spend more on prisons than on education, emphasizing the punishment instead of the cause. See the patterns?
And I don’t know if there is a violence watching threshold. Are we getting close to the point where we have no reaction to watched violence? Denial of the effects of media violence is partly due to psychological reactance, which states that the more forbidden the fruit, the more attractive it is, the more we seek it, and the angrier we get towards those that would deny it.
I’m not about censorship or restricting artistic freedom. But to what detail do we need to see death, to get the point. We are a violent and bloodthirsty people. We justify the bloodbath, by some type of screwed up divine sanction. Manifest destiny, or preservers of freedom, vindication or justice, sanctimonious crusades, we take our wrath out in blood. And we model it in our art. Then we wonder about violence in our world. Violence in our words, our actions, we eat drink and sleep violence. Our heroes are vampire sucking, life-destroying robots of violence. In fact, we equate good with righteous violence.
As HSMs we need to aid in tamping down the violence in our sphere of influence. Perhaps, taking more care with our children in monitoring or sanctioning violent media viewing. If you are teachers, counselors, therapist, ministers or others in the helping professions, use your opportunities wisely to offer suggestions to caregivers and parents about the effects of violent media watching on children and adults. We can lead efforts to offer guidelines, based in part on our sensibilities to the media themselves for acceptable levels of dramatic aggression that serves a dramatic purpose without sensationalizing extreme blood, mutilation or gore. This should be gentle guidance, not out and out restrictive suggestions. We react differently to violence than non-HSPs, we do more feeling, thinking, recounting and I would say more reviewing with emotion and arousal. Maybe some throttling is in order to offer our wise counsel. Others may enjoy or thrill to the exploitative violence in the media, much like a teenager thrills at a joy ride in a stolen car. But repeated exposure, with the consequences sinking unconscious and manifesting in unsavory ways, is something that we as a society must guard against.
Watch the news, read a paper, listen to the radio. It’s already happening.
Alex: It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.
From: A Clockwork Orange
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Clarence: You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?
George Bailey: Dear Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me
George Bailey: show me the way... show me the way.
From: It’s a Wonderful Life
Lately, I’ve been talking about the intense feelings that HSPs can have. Part of that is developing healthy coping skills in dealing with these strong feelings. Men, especially in this country have been socialized to suppress their feelings in order to appear more “manly.” Yet, contrary to all evidence, suppressing feelings is not healthy at all. In fact, it may be contributing to the leading cause of suicide among middle-aged and older men.
It had me thinking that there could be an intersection between some men, who are HSP, that are also older and have been socialized to keep feelings under wrap that may be contributing to an unhealthy sense of hopelessness or helplessness. Learned helplessness is a learned behavior to act or behave helplessly even when there is power to change the harmful or unpleasant circumstance. This behavior contributes to depression and depression, in turn, contributes to suicide.
Depression is the leading cause of suicide. With ten percent of the population reporting feelings of sadness, six percent reporting feelings of hopelessness and five percent reporting a sense of worthlessness, it can easily seem like these factors are contributing to our nation’s depression epidemic. Women are more likely to be sad than men and singles more so than those that are partnered. Women have a two to one ratio for depression in most developing countries, although research shows that men and women have comparable levels of depression, but express it differently.
Nevertheless, men’s suicide rates are higher than women. In spite of the fact that 70% of suicides are caused by the wide umbrella of depression and that women report higher incidences of depression, actual suicides are a staggering 4: 1 in favor of men. This rate of suicide in men increases with age.
It’s worth noting, yet not surprising, that men seldom seek help for depression. Women are more likely to seek help. Women tend to ruminate on depression, holding it inward, whereas men tend to act (externalize) depression with drink and risky behavior. Suicide rates are higher with men over 50. Interestingly, low population states show higher suicide rates as do military personnel, LGBTQ communities and those suffering in chronic pain.
There is some genetic tendency toward suicidal behavior, i.e., the Hemingways. Whether there is genetics at play or that this is learned behavior seems debatable. Edwin Schneidman, a noted psychologist, proposed a suicide model in which the victims tend towards unbearable psychological pain, isolation and a persistent perception that death is the only solution. Of course, there are other contributing factors – loneliness, bullying, discrimination, and separation from family, especially men as non-custodial parents. The upshot of all of this is that depression, helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness contribute to feelings which might lead to suicide. And, men who are desperate are often the ones who act on this.
And what about us highly sensitive people?Would it seem HSPs, and in particular, highly sensitive men, are any more likely to reach that tipping point, born out of desperation? Is there any evidence that would suggest that due to intense emotional processing, and or with the added factor of additional mental health issues, that HSMs are at a higher risk for suicide?
According to Dr. Tracy Cooper, HSPs are prone to depressive and anxious thinking due to a more elaborate depth of processing in their thinking. This thinking can lead to bouts of depression and sadness. But does that put HSMs at more risk of suicidal behavior? In Dr. Cooper’s blog, he references Dr. Thomas Joiner who has reformulated the major causes of suicide for predictive purposes. These causes are framed to highlight the weighted burden men often experience when helplessness and hopelessness set in. It is many ways a reflection of the unrealistic expectations men often shoulder in silence.
Dr. Joiner’s list of criteria consists of the following: 1) a sense of not belonging or being alone, possibly because men often fear ridicule or shame for sharing feelings considered unmanly, 2) a sense of not contributing or of being a burden. In our current economic climate, men can feel as though they do not contribute as much financially as in previous eras creating a sense of guilt, and 3) finally, Dr. Joiner suggests that one must have the capability for suicide, the will to die, to override the evolutionary urge to survive, and the willingness to act. Even as research shows that the suicidal intention is transient and fleeting, there may be that moment in time, as Dr. Elaine Aron says, that the thought, played with, becomes an accidental action, and one breaches the portal of death.
Dr. Aron, speaking specifically to HSPs shows some optimism for the HSP population in regard to suicide. She suggests because of the HSP depth of processing of feelings, our sometimes rampant perfectionism, the fact that HSPs are often bullied because of our uniqueness, and at some level can build a fed up attitude we harbor towards our sensitivity, causes that would otherwise turn others towards dark depression. This may be thwarted in HSPs due to our natural empathy, caution and willingness to think things through before acting. This may keep HSPs from following through on such a permanent and drastic measure.
Yet, I wonder, does Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), the prominent trait of HSPs, create opportunities for HSPs to experience difficulties in processing deep-seeded or highly emotional trauma, i.e., PTSD? Conversely are HSPs any better suited to handle the emotional overwhelm , something that we routinely experience, and are we more likely to share the deep, dark feelings with others? Do HSPs, perhaps, more so than the general population seek out help, including highly sensitive men, when needed to avert something catastrophic like suicide. I have not been able to find specific research supporting this, but feel comfortable assuming there is some degree of truth to that.
What could be a soft crack in the above resilience hypothesis of sensitive men, might be where HSM men over sixty suffering traits suggested by Dr. Joiner, who may not be aware of their SPS traits and may labor with archaic male role models. Regardless of their awareness of their sensitivity, and by that, I mean acceptance of it, they may hold their feelings in private to seem more masculine and yet suffer deeply within and not connect with others. As research has shown, if they had been raised in negative environments as children, the overall effect could be compounded. With negative copings skills and low self-esteem, this could dovetail quickly into a serious situation.
While acknowledging the seriousness of talk about suicide, which may seem like attention seeking behavior, you cannot assume that the individual is not capable of the act. If you know of someone that is showing these behaviors listed below, or if you are displaying these, get help immediately:
Suicide is always a failed strategy in lieu of better coping skills. A fatalistic approach to life is a failure to comprehend, the value of every life. It is failed thinking, spurred by deep and often unconscious programming, the result of unfortunate learning or experiences. These can be remedied with professional help. Seek out help if you are even contemplating suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
In recent times, we have just witnessed two high profile over 60 males who committed suicide. Robin Williams suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, a disease that causes multiple perplexing physical and psychological problems. The net result of confusion, helplessness, and depression led to his actions. I suspect that Mr. Williams was an HSP, but I have no way of verifying that. He was a thoughtful, sensitive, and gentle man-- that could easily be observed. I can’t imagine his suffering, the consternation of watching his world crumble before him and dealing with those complex feelings of helplessness. Like many, I do miss his brilliance and his talent.
Anthony Bourdain was suffering from depression, according to accounts, with a reported desire to die. Yet, he shouldered a “strong man” mentality, never asking for help. He suffered in many ways, alone, as many men do. Suicide is largely a male problem. Without knowing him, despite his caustic and street tough exterior, I suspect he was at his core a gentle, thoughtful man. His support of the #MeToo movement would suggest great empathy. I will also, miss his lusty appreciation of great food and great culture and his dry wit.
Perhaps, as we begin to redefine what maleness means, we can open doors to those who unwittingly lock themselves behind the dungeon doors of an old archaic definition of masculinity. We are not stoics; we are not Spartans, nor Samurai – death by the blade or poison or violent leaps is not an honorable death. Our wrongful thoughts and concepts, fueled by emotion kill us. They can be changed but must be brought to the surface. By coming clean with our deepest emotions, we can then define who we are and what we wish to be. Let the movement begin.
Clarence: Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?
From: It’s a Wonderful Life
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Clementine: You don't tell me things, Joel. I'm an open book. I tell you everything... every damn embarrassing thing. You don't trust me.
Joel: Constantly talking isn't necessarily communicating.
Clementine: I don't do that. I want to know you.
Clementine: I don't constantly talk! Jesus! People have to share things, Joel...
Clementine: That's what intimacy is. I'm really pissed that you said that to me!
Joel: I'm sorry... I just, my life isn't that interesting.
Clementine: I want to read some of those journals you're constantly scribbling in. What do you write in there if you don't have any thoughts or passions or... love?
From: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
One of the main characteristics associated with Sensory Processing Sensitivity is a propensity for emotional overwhelm. This applies to both male and female HSPs. Overwhelm is the tidal wave of emotion HSPs experience when bombarded with highly charged sensations or feelings. Emotional overwhelm is a state of being brought on by intense emotion that is difficult to manage and can have effects on thinking and functioning.
Common causes of emotional overwhelm are relationship issues, underlying physical and mental conditions, career demands, financial difficulties, unexpected life transitions, loss of a loved one, sleep deprivation, trauma, and poor diet. This can sometimes lead to depression, anxiety, anger, panic, and guilt.
Dr. Elaine Aron points out that emotional overwhelm is a key characteristic of the HSP personality trait. One of her strategies to highly sensitive people in dealing with overwhelm is the idea of emotional regulation. Emotional regulation can be a conscious or unconscious behavior that influences what emotions we have when we have them and how we experience and express them. The importance of this tactic should not be lost on most HSPs. It’s no secret that negative feelings last longer for highly sensitive people.
Dr. Aron recommends emotional regulation follow acceptance of feelings and not being ashamed of having these feelings. It is her suggestion to HSPs to believe that they can cope with their feelings, equally as well as others do. This helps prevent the feeling of helplessness when overwhelm kicks in. She urges the recognition to trust that these feelings will not last and to assure that there is always hope that eventually you can do something to ameliorate strong emotions.
Psychologists refer to feelings as affect. Affect includes feelings and mood. Emotions tend to be briefer than moods. Emotions are more specific , precipitated by a situation or event, whereas moods are broader and have a tendency to linger beyond the triggering events. Feelings are measured by a scale of high or low pleasure and high or low activation. An example might be, anxiety with a low pleasure rating, but a high activation score.
There is some variability in the ability of people to regulate emotion. We all could use this approach at times. Some generally accepted strategies are changing our thoughts, reappraisal – thinking about different things, distraction – doing something different and surface acting (change expressions) or conversely deep acting (regulating feelings). Developing coping skills is important when dealing with overwhelming emotions. However, it is not the same as emotional regulation, although, coping does involve the use of emotional regulation among other actions.
Regulating feelings is not easy or straightforward. There is some automatic regulation that does take place using unconscious learned behavior. For example, a lot of our social behaviors are learned and acted upon without much thought. And, we all know that feelings can be contagious, so others can affect our emotions by simple proximity. For HSPs self-control of emotions can be an exhausting exercise.
Emotional culture and emotional exhaustion are correlated. Those cultures that favor an institutional approach to emotional regulation tend to express more stress and emotional exhaustion. These cultures provide more pressure for cultural norms and conformity. The United States is one such culture. Emotional exhaustion, also known as burnout, creates a chronic state of physical and emotional depletion resulting from excessive environmental and internal demands. This can lead to numerous health issues and can be mentally debilitating.
Stress releases cortisol into the body, and immune systems can be suppressed during stressful times leading to disease and systems shut down in the body. This is not good for HSPs or anyone for that matter. And, although this happens to all humans, HSPs are particularly vulnerable. It is just our nature to process emotions at such a high rate, with a higher influx of sensory information, creating a perfect storm for overwhelm, both emotionally and physically.
Does that make HSPs hypersensitive or prone to histrionic personality disorder (read: you’re getting hysterical)? Some people may think that, but actually, hypersensitivity, a part of Sensory Processing Disorder (not Sensory Processing Sensitivity), is about unusually high reactions to sensory stimulus. This can be a single sense or multiple senses, and in and of itself can be debilitating. Histrionic personality disorder (hysterical), a condition that occurs mostly in women is an excessive expression of emotion used to drive attention seeking behavior. A manipulative behavior typically learned early in life and manifesting in young adulthood. Neither of these should be confused with emotional overwhelm or as causes for emotional overwhelm in HSPs.
For most HSPs shutting down and getting away to solitude is the most typical response. But, is this always practical? At work or in public emotional self-regulation is an expected cultural norm. In fact, one definition of emotional regulation espouses dealing with life experiences with socially acceptable levels of emotion, modifying, evaluating and moderating reactions via extrinsic and intrinsic means. General advice from most authorities leans towards an exercise in thought sculpting these eruptive emotions to control the response.
But can this be controlled like a tap? Can it be throttled down situationally? Or do we only have the ability to control the aftermath? What are the warning signs, signals that help warn of an impending dam blast of emotion? Should the focus rather be on moderating the emotions or modulating them? As I am using the terms, moderating is more about changing emotions as they arise, whereas, modulating would focus on controlling emotions at the source.
Moderation techniques would include the thought sculpting mentioned previously or simply as Dr. Aron suggests waiting and allowing the emotional wave to subside and then sharing with a trusted confidant. By sharing, the emotion is released of additional internal processing by talking it through. There is an interesting process model for emotional regulation, which includes a feedback loop to repeat the process if necessary. It consists of four components, 1) the situation or event, 2) giving attention to the situation, 3) appraising, evaluating and interpreting the situation, and 4) formulating a response – then if necessary looping back to the beginning.
Some additional strategies with this method would include, remove yourself from the situation, modifying the situation, redirecting your attention from the situation, cognitive change, and moderating the response to fit the situation.
Modulation techniques would be those techniques that mostly focus on relaxation strategies to gear the nervous system to a state of emotional calm and training the brain to respond to highly emotional situations in a calmer manner. It is in many ways, training the brain to stay calm under fire. Some of these techniques I have been advocating in other blog posts. They include autogenic training, bio/neurofeedback, deep breathing exercises, hypnotherapy, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, exercise, massage, yoga, Qigong, meditation, EFT, prayer or intention training. All of these methods help by creating internal peace and calm as a steady state. This does not prevent emotional events from triggering familiar responses, but rather helps the experiencer return to a calmer state faster.
Yes, there are actions you can take to prevent or ameliorate emotional overwhelm, but they do involve practice and control. It may be best to find one that best fits you and then stick with it. Overtime, with repeated effort, it will help in some ways rewire your brain for handling intense emotion.
Here are some further suggestions:
Clementine: I apply my personality in a paste.
From: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
John Keating: Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go,
[imitating a goat]
John Keating: "that's baaaaad." Robert Frost said, "Two roads diverged in the wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
From: Dead Poet’s Society.
It seems highly sensitive men are asked from an early age to always “man up” or “get tougher.” Of course, almost all boys are told the same thing, most will take it to heart and comply, but HSP males have to struggle with what their internal workings are telling them. The request is essentially asking that HSMs override their sensitive nature to present a culturally acceptable mask of what a man should be. Understand that this is not really about manhood or being a man, but rather following a prescribed definition of gender role, that probably traces its roots too deep in our ancestral past.
The focus of “manning up” is to suppress emotional response in males. I am talking about a full spectrum of emotion. The logic states that less emotion means more logical, more rational thoughts and behaviors. But looking around at the current male-dominated world in which we live, you can see that this clearly does not pass muster.The inconsistencies are legion.
Asking HSP males to be less emotional, less prone to deep processing and thoughtfulness, so as to fit neatly into a cultural norm that is archaic at best, and destructive at its worse is an epochal calamity waiting to happen. The question among all HSP males is should I or can I even change my personality enough to fit into that mold comfortably. Can I become something that I am not?
The teaching to HSP men and boys is to simply apply one’s willpower to suppress feelings, thoughts, behaviors that are products of our unique genetic trait. Can one apply willful change for the long term, to change fundamental characteristics of our personalities? Is this just a matter of self-control, when self-control is control over one’s behavior, actions, thoughts, and emotions – a herculean effort at self-regulation. And, what would be the benefit – delaying display of emotion in order to appear to be unaffected and dispassionate? Is this masculinity? To meet an expectation of manhood that would deny a fundamental expression of something human and completely normal.
And, what about our deep processing? Can sheer willpower control that? Would exercising quick decision making make us think less deliberately and appear to be more forceful or aggressive? Can we turn off the mechanism that calls us to deeply process on an event or action that occurred in the past, causing us to retreat to a quiet place and examine all possible outcomes? Or do our emotions impact our decision making to the extent that we always run with our feelings, our gut, our intuition?
One of the reasons our deep processing capability is so valuable is that it allows us to reflect before we take action. In a reactive world, this is refreshing to know that there are those that do think before acting. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, this does produce a benefit for the larger group, as long as the deep thinking HSPs are in the minority, which we typically are. The logic is that if the larger group is more non-HSP inclined, then the unique insights of HSPs will be useful and appreciated more. In other words, our difference is our value.
Chinese researchers studying HSP characteristics have found that our deep processing, reflecting in the high availability of dopamine in our brains, a hormone that facilitates the deep processing, suggests that our trait of deep processing sensory data is a genetic one, one not likely to be altered easily. In addition, a lot of deep processing may go on outside of conscious awareness, which produces many insights that we attribute to our keen intuition.
Couple that with strong emotions and associate that with our depth of processing can lead to stronger encoding and insight with that information. Pairing our high emotion with thinking enhances memory and facilitates lessons learned, perhaps producing wisdom. Another benefit of our emotional nature. And, if some of the deep processing is potentially unconscious, how could we control that aspect? So much of what our brains do happens below or at near threshold of awareness. The idea that we could control this consciously seems unrealistic and impractical and only as an afterthought.
So much of emotional reaction seems nearly involuntary. Think of a time when something affected you very deeply. Perhaps, something touched you unexpectedly, or a trusted friend unjustly criticized you or betrayed you. The emotional machinery deep within triggers at neuronic speed a series of physiological and emotional responses reflexively. Often too fast to stop. And this happens to everyone at some point.
To me, the answer is clearly no: no to change and no to self-control. While I realize that some adaptation may benefit us, the wholesale dismissal of who we are is not only unrealistic; it’s impossible to do as a long-term strategy. We can no more turn off our deep sensing nature any more than we can turn off our deep processing – the two are polar ends of a singular trait, we call SPS, sensory processing sensitivity. That makes us different and unique, and I might add useful.
We are what we are because SPS is a deeply ingrained inherent quality within us. Our SPS trait uniquely influences our cognitions, motivations, and behaviors. It is a primary filter in our lives, coloring our experiences and shaping us. It is a fundamentally genetic trait that couples with our environments, upbringing influences, tendencies, potentials, adaptability, and self-induced moderations to create the HSP influenced, yet unique individual that we are.
The question remains can we steer these fundamental and inherent qualities and factors that can be unconscious, yet influence our thoughts and behaviors? Can we change our configuration of traits (even if we truly desired to make this change) to mold ourselves into something that is not us? To conform to an arbitrary set of standards, that we are inherently designed to buck? Is this just an exercise in thought control?
So many rational materialists put such emphasis these days on thinking our way out of problems. And, by thinking, I mean thought sculpting our way out of our problems, our issues and especially our feelings, some of which originate in our unconscious. To believe that we as HSMs can think our way out of being “sensitive” (as if that is a problem) so that we can follow the norm is ludicrous. You can no more think your way out of being blue or brown eyed than to think your way out of being an HSP.
Within this expectation of change is an unrealistic emphasis on what the conscious critical mind can achieve when in reality much of the processing including motivation, self-image, and confidence has roots in the unconscious patterns that require much effort to change. This part of personality that forms self-image becomes the sum total of one’s knowledge and understanding of self. Some of this is learned, some of it is traits influenced, organized along the lines of beliefs, thoughts, and self-perception. A self-concept once cemented may serve to preserve a view of self to protect that self-image and rarely yields to outside influence.
The prevailing wisdom, for men, is get in line or go home. Falling in line to please people is a lame and counterproductive strategy. I know, I’ve done it enough in my life. You cease to be authentic when you place yourself in compromised positions, vis-à-vis your HSP traits.
Masculinity in the modern world is past due for some needed major revisions. Current expectations are out of reach even for many non-HSP men. Moving the bar over towards a more human model serves both men and women. There is no need to abandon healthy male expectations, which may underlie our peculiar evolutionary roles, but note we don’t live in caves anymore. So, put aside the club and bearskins.
The upshot of all of this is to accept and embrace our sensitivity or more specifically our SPS qualities. It is indeed a gift, but like all gifts comes with some strings attached. You are more aware, more empathetic, more sensitive to nuance. Emotions often rush to the surface without much control. That’s fine, but remember others may be put off by your handling of things. Just be prepared for some pushback.
As always, educate others when you can. Educate yourself and find others of our tribe for fellowship. Recognize that you are not alone, no matter how you have felt in the past. Remember, too, where you may have been called to self-restraint or chastised for these qualities previously, self-control and willpower will not change you. Nor should it. You are what you are, and regardless of how you look at it as fate, by design, by nature or some type of cosmic tuning, you are here for a reason -- just as you are.
Neil Perry: I just talked to my father. He's making me quit the play at Henley Hall. Acting's everything to me. I- But he doesn't know! He- I can see his point; we're not a rich family, like Charlie's. We- But he's planning the rest of my life for me, and I- He's never asked me what I want!
John Keating: Have you ever told your father what you just told me? About your passion for acting? You ever showed him that?
Neil Perry: I can't.
John Keating: Why not?
Neil Perry: I can't talk to him this way.
John Keating: Then you're acting for him, too. You're playing the part of the dutiful son. Now, I know this sounds impossible, but you have to talk to him. You have to show him who you are, what your heart is!
Neil Perry: I know what he'll say! He'll tell me that acting's a whim and I should forget it. They're counting on me; he'll just tell me to put it out of my mind for my own good.
John Keating: You are not an indentured servant! It's not a whim for you, you prove it to him by your conviction and your passion! You show that to him, and if he still doesn't believe you - well, by then, you'll be out of school and can do anything you want.
Neil Perry: No. What about the play? The show's tomorrow night!
John Keating: Then you have to talk to him before tomorrow night.
Neil Perry: Isn't there an easier way?
John Keating: No.
Neil Perry: [laughs] I'm trapped!
John Keating: No, you're not.
From: Dead Poet’s Society.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
The French have a term, L’Appel Du Vide, the call of the void, to describe that intrusive call to oblivion, of self-destruction or of jumping impulsively into the abyss, that we all experience from time to time. The moment happens to most of us, in a split second, standing near a ledge, or driving in a car, wherein we contemplate cutting across the line into oncoming traffic. It is like Carlos Castaneda’s ideology of death stalking us, tempting us with a moment, where we are dared to chase the reaper. A snap inner voice that says “Jump!” and for a split second, our minds drift over into the call to nothingness. A single moment of distraction, an alternate reality, and then just as suddenly back to normalcy, with a deep sigh.
We HSPs live a lot of our lives inside of our heads. Many of our self-concepts come from the conclusions we have drawn from our own deep analysis and deep processing. Many times we don’t validate those conclusions externally, because of our sensitivity to criticism and our fragile egos. We make ourselves subject to deep hurt when our carefully considered assumptions are proven wrong by expressing them to others. Deep processing does not always mean correct conclusions. In fact, I would argue that many of our conclusions are off the mark, like computer code stuck in an endless loop.
At times this can create a bit of an existential crisis with us, causing doubt about who we are, what we are and, thoughts on the possible need to construct a new model within our egos. A very conscientious individual can be severely rattled when confronted with logical holes in their reasoning or in their emotional position.
And, at that moment, does this create a metaphorical moment of L’appel du vide? You have to love the French for taking a very serious matter and give it an élan that only they can do. L’appel du vide is not always about taking the plunge, it is though a split second of resignation, passing quickly, offering a moment of liberation at the thought of no longer existing. We briefly escape our existence, jumping headlong into a dark nothingness, where we can abandon, our emotions and our hurt. Here, when our peaceful place of refuge lets us down, we can flash think into a nonexistence.
Of course, quickly we flash back to reality, shocked for the moment that the idea of nonexistence was presented in front of us. A fantasy suicide of sorts, that never happens.
Is this real? Does this scenario happen to HSPs? Are we subject to the un petite l’appel du vide thoughts? Or are we more practical, suffer the insults, process heavily, then pop our little heads out of the hole again, no worse for the wear? Suicidal ideation, fleeting thoughts, role-playing or incompletion of actually ending it all, is not so uncommon. But, it is a serious matter. Nearly four percent of adult Americans report having these moments. The underlying causes often come from mood disorders, depression or simply by feeling alone, abandoned or the stress of life. But, what I am speaking of here, is not that.
These moments of existential crisis, a moment when the individual questions if their life has meaning, purpose or value, may lead one to conjure an l’appel du vide moment. More often popping up as a spontaneous subconscious thought. Could heavy, deep processing of a bad decision, or wrong conclusion, lead one to doubt oneself or to provide too many options to choose from, lead to this same internal crisis?
Is this just a miscalculation? Can overprocessing of highly energized emotional input cause us HSPs to over calculate causing an internal crisis? Dr. Elaine Aron acknowledges to our deep processing cycles with the acronym, D.O.E.S. The D represents the HSP depth of processing, that deep contemplation of what others might see as minutiae. The O stands for overstimulation, a common characteristic of HSPs, our world of overwhelm. The E is for emotional reactivity, our energizing quality, and finally, the S is for seeing the subtle or our high marking sensitivity. Now granted all of these qualities have and can be seen as positive in many ways, bringing us the ability to be intuitive, empathetic, cautious and careful planners. But, can too much processing be a two-edged sword?
Sometimes the pain is the lesson. Suffering through deep processing should eventually lead to some type of action, but with HSPs not always is there follow through. A constant churn of revisiting, rethinking and reevaluating conclusions may not be a great strategy for solutions. Even with our need for solitude, alone time, silent reflection – in the end, a decision or action is needed. Too much solitude can lead to a distortion of perception, increased anxiety and perhaps sensory illusions.
When a computer program goes into an endless loop, it follows the code, regardless of the flaw and loops back endlessly to the beginning, only to start again. It wastes computer time and resources, perhaps generating needless output, yet never concluding. When confronted with painful reality are HSPs subject to endless loop processing?
Then, does inaction lead us to those moments of l’appel du vide? Does our deep processing lead us to wish we could let go of the processing cycle? Do we fall into an endless loop, not deciding, not concluding, but caught, lost in too much information – and in our imaginations, staring blithely through a rain-soaked windshield at the oncoming traffic ahead and flashing a moment of nonexistence for a respite?
So, what do we do? Follow up the deep processing with some type of action. Don’t get caught in the whirlpool, getting sucked down into the vortex of overthinking. Don’t let frustration get you down, heads up, keep looking to break the trend of over processing. And, if that moment of l’appel du vide comes into conscious awareness – consider it rather as a leap of faith. Yes, process as we do, but at some point face the uncomfortableness and take action to resolve. You’ll never know if you are right or wrong until you expose your thinking to the outside. Take the leap into the void of uncertainty but leave the leap from the cliff alone.
Note: Suicide is a serious matter. If you are having recurring suicidal thoughts, please seek immediate help from a medical or mental health professional. The gist of this article was to take the French concept of “the call of the void” and use it in a metaphorical way, describing a brief mental escape. L’appel du vide in this context was also used to mean responding to the call as a mental leap of faith or better yet, taking a calculated risk towards positive action, expressed as leaping into the unknown. Breaking the habit of overthinking is probably a good thing, but don’t abandon careful, considerate deep evaluation. Consider it carefully, as I know you will.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
Are HSPs any better or luckier in love than non-HSPs? Because of our affinity to emotion are we better lovers or more inclined to better, more loving relationships? You would think we’d be all-stars at love – compassionate, caring and nurturing souls that we are.
The research doesn’t seem to support this. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, we have a tendency to be less happy in our romantic relationships. Simply put, we tend to be too idealistic, too caring; too easily focused on the needs of our partners, that we often fail to get our own needs met. In fact, we are typically drawn to people who have problems and these people tend to drag us down into their own insular world, leaving us to abandon our needs in favor of theirs. This deep focusing on pleasing our mates is known as mate sensitivity or finding what pleases our love interests and giving them what they need at all costs.
My own experiences, when it comes to love bear this out. It’s not that my selections were all bad; it’s that I was badly suited to their needs and them to me. Yet, someone in need almost always draws me in. Two failed marriages, several failed recent relationships highlighted that I have not been where I needed to be, to truly have love or to share it.
But what special needs do HSPs have in regard to garnering a fruitful and successful love relationship? For one, it is always best to spend some time determining what your needs are. Take the time and dwell deeply on this.
This goes way beyond the physical and the initial attraction. Take time to get to know the other person. Know who they are at their core. It’s easy to fall prey to the notion that the physical will overcome in some way any of the other components of a person’s personality that are not clicking with you. That never works, no matter how good the physical relationship appears.
It’s also important to set boundaries early on, on how much you give, how much you take. Locate the perimeters of those boundaries in regard to respect, your privacy, your solitary time. Focus on how you communicate – the style, the intensity, the frequency. Note how sensitive they are to your sensitivity, do they accept your peculiarities, your intuitive ways, your skills of anticipation. Do they exploit your willingness to dive in on their problems, do they begin to focus only on their needs, do they minimize you. Stay close to your intuition here. And by all means, get this on the table early on.
You need a relationship that will bolster your self-esteem and build you up. If you find yourself creeping around on eggshells, every cracking egg should be a warning to you that the environment for love is not there, not for you.
And if the “other” is a vampire, an emotion sucker, run like hell to the nearest exit. Note how you argue/disagree with the person, note how quickly it gets emotional or worse yet, hysterical and or violent – either physically or verbally. These should all be big red flags. If the conflict becomes attacking and personal, then get out quickly. You CANNOT fix their underlying issues.
Being a hopeless romantic, an erotic idealist does not make this any easier. The romantic part never prepares you for the practical matters of love. The day to day existence, the support when you are down, loving you between the poetic lines, understanding of your deep needs for space, for privacy, for emotional expression – the grind that a long-term relationship brings.
Then, dealing with the inevitable conflict that living with someone brings. Our penchant for avoidance of conflict, or shying away from blunt speaking of truth, which often brings accompanying accusations of lying when withholding our conflicted truth. To be honest or to hurt, tumbles around in our heads; two options that typically slay us in our bewildering internal map. And conflict brings a disrobing of our idealized self, often cloaked in secrecy – that sometimes reveals dark, deep warts, or exposing tender spots of vulnerability. Sometimes exposing our truth, lying deep within, withheld and festering, comes a dark moment of realization, looking starkly at the reflection of who we are in the real world of romance.
What we are ideally suited for is the romancing, the conscientious lover part, the creative artistic part of love. Yet, we are not practical lovers. Are we just romantic dreamers that once confronted with the real world, melt and fade away or leave, looking for that next impassioned high. Do we love too much for our own good? Are we addicted to the biochemical reaction of love, the brain-altering and heart-shaking love of first taste romance? Do we love the endorphin rush, the dopamine bomb, the oxytocin fix we all crave but rarely find?
Can Everywoman understand us enough to live and cope with our highly sensual natures? Does Everywoman match up to our idealistic constructs of the perfect woman? Do we all push through the existential pain of unrequited love of idealized love that seemingly we seem to all walk through – the deep loneliness that our personality makes for us? Or is it just me?
I wonder if we should just search for HSP lovers, those like us, who share our deep caring ways, our deep inner world or could we not stand to be around someone like us? Would too many HSP characteristics slopping around in the tank, make the whole engine guck up and freeze?
Finding your ideal lover is unique for all of us. Some will find their mates early on, stick with them and mate for life. Maybe for others, it’s the rebound of a second chance. The opportunity to learn and correct past mistakes. And there are those of us who are just seekers of experience. Drunkards for love. We are intrepid souls that enter other’s lives, with good intent (“yes, this time, its right”); we love them like no other and by circumstance or our own making, leave or move on, still yearning, still aching for perfect love.
In the wake of our search are those that we touch in our lives, and because we are not heartless bastards, don’t leave them without something of a glance of what a real caring lover can look like. But because of our betrayal, we stab them unintentionally, to loose us from our bond, so that we, ever seeking, can move on. The life of a gypsy is a lonely one and along the way, the fences all have barbed wire leaving trace scars on our hearts.
No, don’t date Everywoman, HSM men. You will likely fail unless she is a rare gem. You are not Everyman. You are both better and worse than that. Stephen Stills once said in song, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one your with.” And, I would add, until you find the right one. That elusive unicorn of love, that always sits at the edge of the horizon, where the sun is setting, silhouetted and motionless, directing you towards them. You need that special lover. They are rare indeed. You will have to look hard to find them, but with diligence and persistence, you will meet your special one. She may be looking for you now. Have faith.
P.S. To all my lady loves, I thank you. You have taught me both joy and pain, love and disappointment, hurt and ecstasy. I am far from perfect; forgive me my wonderings. You were all my muses. Thank you for the time together.
A Blog about Sensory Processing Sensitivity from the Worldview of a High Sensing Male
We are a peculiar bunch, we HSPs. Some might even say we are a bit eccentric. This is especially true for Highly Sensitive Males. We HSMs are a small percentage of a small percentage of the human population and we just don’t meet, for the most part, the stereotypes of the modern western male. But, eccentric?
Dictionary.com defines eccentric as adj.: deviating from the recognized or customary character, practice, etc., irregular erratic, peculiar, odd. Noun: A person, who has an unusual, peculiar or odd personality, set of beliefs or behavior patterns. The word has its root from the (Medieval Latin) eccentricus from the Greek ekkentr(os) which is to be out of the center. It is used in Geometry and Astronomy to describe something that is out of center or not concentric. In other words, something that lies on the outside.
Eccentricity is often tolerated or even revered in the very wealthy or those who are celebrities. Their odd ways and behaviors can become fashionable amongst the masses, and are sometimes talked about as if these eccentrics were geniuses or acceptable outliers. In that regard, eccentricity can be a favorable quality, making one a leader or a trendsetter by walking a different path.
But what makes us HSMs seem eccentric to others? Is it the emotional aspects of our personalities, our broad accepting worldview, or our internal conflicts about our masculinity? What about our aversion to overstimulation, the hermitic deep processing of our experiences, or the masculine/feminine polarity, that many HSM men wrestle with? Are we too moody, too quiet, too sensitive to criticism, too introverted? We can be too empathetic, too observational, and too persnickety to environmental changes, but are we that different? Do we appear to the outside world to be outliers, strange, hard to figure out and hard to live with? In some cases, do people just want to throw up their hands and give up on us, because we are too much work?
But does that make us eccentric? Maybe. Eccentricity, also known as quirkiness, is not necessarily a maladaptive behavior. But, yes, we can be a bit off center from mainstream personality and behaviors. Many HSPs have an intellectual giftedness and curiosity, and a propensity for original and creative thought. That’s what makes many of us talented poets, actors, authors, painters and visionaries. We see things differently via our peculiar and unique perceptive lens. But are we eccentric?
The psychologist, David Meeks states that eccentrics are less prone to mental illness than the general population. Doesn’t that seem odd? Perhaps if you look at some of the other defining characteristics of eccentrics, it makes more sense. Eccentrics have an enduring propensity for non-conformity, they are creative (sound familiar?), have a strongly motivated curiosity (and I would add observational skills), an enduring sense of differentness and embrace this wonderful idealism that drives them to want to make the world a better place to live. In addition, eccentrics are intelligent, outspoken and have a quirky, mischievous sense of humor. With that battery of personality characteristics, it would seem eccentrics are well armed for survival in uncertain times, does it not?
Because we HSPs have an increased awareness and sensitivity to our environment and we do very deep and thoughtful processing, it makes sense that we may seem to the majority of the non-HSPs world to be a bit different, because of our peculiar way of looking at the world. And what about our tendency towards overwhelm, how we can so easily be affected by other’s moods or emotions, then retreat to our voluntary isolation, our emotional caves. We are prone to unrealistic perfectionism at times, which sometimes causes us to live out of sync with our environment and the people around us. So with our enhanced qualities of sensory detail, nuanced expression, and meaning, our emotional awareness which leads us to greater empathy and an expression of creativity, could we not be seen as eccentric?
Think about this: the following people have been associated with the quality of high sensitivity or Sensory Processing Sensitivity – Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Orson Welles, Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Nicole Kidman, Katherine Hepburn, John Lennon, Elton John, Alanis Morissette, Neil Young, and Dolly Parton. And, my personal favorite, Robin Williams. That’s a pretty quirky bunch, wouldn’t you say?
Eccentric – well, yes, in a lot of ways. But, they turned that eccentricity into beautiful art. They are beloved by millions. And perhaps their sensitivity played heavily into their creative process. For some, it might have been a way to mask and protect themselves, for others it might have been a way to reach out and find common ground with the world. But for all of them, they risked being called eccentric and to rise above criticism to be themselves.
So, if we HSPs are that quirky, strange or weird, then what do we do about it? Is some eccentricity really good for HSPs? I mean, is eccentricity just really being different? But, wait, aren’t we different? Don’t we already admit that? I would say rather, how do we embrace our eccentricity? Can we stop worrying about what others think about us? Should we be promoting and socializing our uniqueness? And as people learn more about our nature, our personality our SPS secret, will they better understand us, and with that begin to normalize us?
Here are some things to think about concerning our “eccentricity”:
Following on a recent post on taking criticism, this week we focus on those times when criticism leads to arguments and how HSPs often struggle with conflict. How is that generally, bright, intelligent, deep thinking people, seem to wilt in the heat of a contentious argument. It’s as if a bit gets flipped in our brains and we shut down unable to keep up with the fast pace of heated argumentative situations. I have often wondered about that in myself. It's as if I lose processing power to fight back or at least contend with the high emotion of the situation. The minute the temperature heats up, my force fields go up and my brain starts to scramble. Yet, my ego won’t let me stay quiet, even if my arguments are a scrabble board of mixed thoughts and my parries fall into almost nonsensical logic.
I have never quite understood what happens to deflate my ability to counterpoint, especially against clever people who seem to thrive in these types of situations. What am I afraid of? Loss of face? Shaming? Am I afraid of losing favor with the person I’m arguing with? Does the overwhelm caused by unbridled defensiveness, a welling up of emotion, and my perfectionism kick in together to create a stew of mush, that causes me to lose control of my thoughts and move from single threading to a kaleidoscope of mixed emotion and thought too incoherent to vocalize? Does my thoughtful manner, and in this case I mean pensive, lead to a type of “ I’m right no matter what,” because I thought a lot about this, therefore I must be right.
Last week I talked about the external testing of our ideas and thoughts, not so much to gain consensus but to test our theories in the real world. Part of that is to hear and debate counterpoints in our line of thinking. But if testing leads to pushback on our ideas, ideas that are a representation of who we are, then does this ultimately lead to avoidance behavior, i.e., for arguing our point, because we are not willing to accept that maybe we are wrong in our thinking. And this shatters an internal mythos about ourselves. If so, I cannot see this avoidance behavior as being a realistic strategy for HSPs in testing our ideas, much less for anyone else.
The overwhelm, nevertheless, is very real. Overwhelm comes from within, especially for HSPs. In the heat of an argument, stressors arise that lead our minds, to recognize that in arguing with someone else, we have a situation with an unpredictable outcome. A very contentious argument is also full of raw emotion. This kindling lit with the emotion of the moment sets off a brush fire in our neural circuitry that can quickly short-circuit our minds.
Moving quickly into defensive mode, the flight or fight syndrome kicks in. Arguing for us is a runaway emotional trap. We are caught in a battle between our flee or fight instincts, mostly focused on self-preservation, and therefore we quickly shut down our brain’s effectiveness in following rational intellectual capacity which is there but cut off. The sting of defeat in an argument is deeply felt. The human brain processes emotional pain in the same way it processes physical pain. The same areas light up in the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex with physical and emotional pain, in an apparent evolutionary efficiency.
I often wonder if the amygdala in HSPs is overactive. The Deep Layer Superior Colliculus (DLSC) area of the brain works in conjunction with the amygdala to regulate emotional response in threatening situations. HSPs response to stress situations seems to predispose us to always be on high alert, based on our unique genetics and our life experiences. This constant flashing of alerts for sometimes exaggerated situations, like arguing, may, in fact, affect our hippocampus and other key areas of the brain in negative ways. This is prominent in situations where HSPs or for that matter anyone who has lived through traumatic life experiences much of which is harbored in the port of our subconscious mind.
The intensity of feeling is no doubt greater in HSPs compounding this problem. Greater feelings of anxiety in response to stress may lead to malfunction of the brain, especially in stressful argumentative situations. The repressed anger ensuing a stinging defeat may lead to increased muscular tension in the body, as we “hold within” our feelings of not being able to make ourselves heard in an argument, and can lead to later side effects within the body.
More importantly, I think this can lead HSPs towards a lifetime of argument avoidance, especially those that are conflictual and highly charged emotionally. This may lead to less expression of opinion in public forums, standing up for oneself in political or philosophical debates, or in work environment discussions. Some friends and family may even feel that we are hiding something from them and can construe negative imaginings about who we really are. Not a good situation.
The Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument defines several types of modes or styles of dealing with conflict. They range from the most aggressive to more avoidant styles, each style with a marker for assertiveness and cooperativeness. The most assertive style, competing is assertive and non-collaborative. The collaborating style is assertive, but as the name implies collaborative. Avoiding style is both non-assertive and non-collaborative. The accommodating style is non- assertive but collaborating and finally, the compromising style is right in the middle on both assertive and collaborating. It would seem that most HSPs would fall in the avoiding, accommodating or compromising style of handling conflict. With the worst case being the avoidant strategy and perhaps, the most successful being the compromising strategy or with some practice and skill, the collaborating style.
In another angle on effects of personality and arguing skills, the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, which is based on Carl Jung’s personality types, can be extrapolated on key personality functions to indicate tendencies during arguments. For example, Thinkers (T)– would no doubt focus on the facts and tangible evidence, whereas, Feelers (F)– would focus on the interpersonal dynamics of the people involved in the argument. People who are Judgers (J) – might focus on temporal issues, how the now impacts the future, where conversely, Perceivers (P) – would focus on inputs and if the conflict is being addressed. Most HSPs tend to be NFs (intuitive feelers), so according to this, sensitive folks would be more concerned with the emotional dynamics of the argument and the impacts caused to relationships, perhaps empathizing with our opponent and deferring to keep the peace.
This, in turn, may lead to internal conflict, between defending self and our position versus feeling empathy towards the person we are arguing with. The internalized stress and conflict may be a leading reason our brains shut down, scrambled by conflicting directives. How then do we slow our brains down, single thread our thoughts and think lucidly during an argument?
Interestingly, as may be noted, that the effects of alcohol and some drugs may seem to achieve this objective. These external agents do affect the inhibition systems within the brain, which, of course, affects behavior. Some of the main attributes of usage are: 1) anxiety suppression, 2) disinhibition, 3)ego inflation, 4)thought deceleration, and 5) emotional suppression. In my own experience, I have noticed this to be true. However, there is a tipping point, where the effects are counterproductive and lead to many more issues that are not productive. Let me say, that in no way am I advocating the use of these substances to enhance the ability to handle conflict. It simply illustrates that the capacity to regulate emotional throughput can be done, even if we are using an external agent.
Far better approaches are handled without introducing external chemistry. This gets back to emotional regulation, which can and should be done internally. Here are some strategies for dealing with arguments:
It occurs to me that Highly Sensitive People tend to live a mostly trusting life. I think we generally look for the good in others, are optimistic about outcomes, maybe to a fault, and generally foster a rich internal life that supports this belief. The general characteristics of HSPs as outlined by Dr. Elaine Aron’s are 1) a depth of processing input data, 2) tendency towards over-stimulation, 3) emotional responsiveness and empathetic response, and 4) a certain sensitivity to subtleties. So, how do these characteristics foster a trusting and maybe borderline naïve outlook on life?
It has been noted by Jacquelyn Strickland that most HSPs fall into the NF (intuitive feeling) category on the Myers Briggs personality inventory. NF’s tend to be highly idealistic visionaries, who focus on big-picture ideation and do not typically get down in the weeds with detail and minutiae. Ironic that our depth of processing is typically emotionally based versus a more objective analytical processing of information that many more analytical personalities take. We like the feeling of ideas as opposed to the critical analysis of ideas. This is by no means saying that HSPs are not analytical or have the capacity for critical thinking. However, I do believe we prefer the feel of ideas and I would add the playing with these ideas in our minds.
Now if you combine the general characteristics of HSPs with the personality tendencies of HSP NFs, what I think you get is a rich inner world in which we tend to play with ideas and judge their worthiness based upon our feelings or emotional reactions. Processing deeply for us really means a deep rumination of thought and emotion towards an external stimulus. We deep dive with our feelings carrying thoughts and ideas with us on our rich inner journeys.
Part of the problem with this strategy is that it often leads to overstimulation, both from external and internal sources, as we turn the idea over and over in our heads. Because we live so much in our emotions, based on what I think is our need to experience emotional flow, our response is typically emotional, impulsive and not always rooted in rational thought or grounded in critical analysis.
It has been noted in studies, that HSPs tend to respond mostly in emotional centers in the brain when presented with positive or negative images. Almost as if we filter our world through our emotions, i.e., how does it feel? This could explain why the same study suggested that HSPs exhibit differential susceptibility, which really means we do better in positive (read emotions) versus negative environments. This is, of course, would impact our internal world processing.
HSPs may also show a stronger optimism bias, which is a somewhat naïve view that bad things won’t happen to us. Without external confirmation of our theories about life, we may find that we stoke up our psychological immune systems, with those beliefs that cushion the blow of negativity in our lives and give emotional respite towards negative events. This sometimes prevents us from learning our life lessons through objective analysis, albeit temporarily protecting us from the blow. In addition, this emotional optimism may give us a sense of control, when events in our lives seem uncontrollable.
Does this make us overestimate the reality of our lives or get overly optimistic about our careers, plans, relationships, projects, and ideas when faced with pushback in the real world? Do we need to learn to be more critical or rational in our thinking? Should we suppress our intuition or feelings, when dealing with the outside world in making key decisions? Is our rich inner world composed of emotional fantasies untamed and wild and driving us to poor decision making? It certainly is something to consider.
Perhaps, we should consider how we might become more critical in our thinking. I worked for many years in corporate America in the information technology area of a large bank. Critical thinking was essential to success in this field and I did have to learn to become more analytical, not only as a technical resource but as a manager as well. Problem-solving requires a certain calm state in the brain, laying the facts all around you and dissecting and discerning the objective pieces before you. I learned I was quite good at it. Yet, throughout, I knew that my strength was in the big picture overview and not in the details. It was I thought a good compromise, considering how my brain works naturally. Somehow, I was able to make it work.
But do all HSPs need to be more critical in our decisions and interactions, or more skeptical or even cynical? At the extreme end of the spectrum, cynical thinking is rooted in fear. It seems more in more in our world, critical or skeptical thinking has been overrun with cynicism. In business and in science, I sense a more cynical view from these areas on outlier or new ideas as if to keep the herd in check. Cynicism is hard and vindictive; it is not open-minded and displays a lack of the characteristics that HSPs own. It is the damaged outer portal of someone who has been burned and has full shields up for protection. Not something HSPs should aspire to.
Can we, should we learn to be more critical? The premise of this blog piece was to look at the way HSPs process internally and the effects of our rich inner life-- sometimes fantastic, sometimes fanciful. Are we more susceptible to others taking advantage of us, for our trusting, nurturing nature? And do we live too much in our inner worlds? This is especially targeted at the Introvert HSPs, which make up seventy percent of our base. And in addition, to narrow the field a bit more adding the introverted HSPs that are NF on the Myers Briggs.
Because NF’s focus on abstractions in speech including using rich metaphors, promote diplomacy and harmony, foster altruism, believe in optimism fueled by positivity, trust intuition, are romantic in thought and deed, and focus on what could be, rather than what is, we tend to be easy targets for those that would prey on many of these characteristics. Yes, it would seem we are a lot of Don Quixote’s chasing windmills. The idea that we are prone to mysticism continues to put us out in the realm of outliers. Our rich inner life does provide us with a wealth of new ideas, mostly untested, still soft, not hardened by the real world, but still new ways to think.
Our enthusiasm for these new ideas can be easily crushed by cynical outside observers, who intent on keeping a mythological status quo, press us back into the herd. These are folks we need to be wary of and avoid. In the last blog, I spoke of receiving criticism and fostering a more accepting nature towards constructive criticism when given by those that indeed wish to help us.
To realize that our ideas that emerge from this font of creativity within us are like newly released magma, fluid and still malleable. With the help of those that we cultivate around us to give us that external testing and feedback, we can then shape the ideas into practical and useful and insightful ideas that have real value. Yes, we can develop our own critical faculties, as many of us have, but releasing some of our internal world to the external world for evaluation, confirmation, and agreement, to me, is a good thing.
Now, I realize that not all HSPs are lumped into the same bucket. We are all unique; we are able to navigate the world in our own ways. Many people write that HSPs are too broad of a group to lump into categories, and perhaps there is truth there. However, I still feel that too many people out there have identified and are continuing to identify with like characteristics attributed to the highly sensitive person. The discovery continues, the more we share with each other our thoughts, our feelings, and our ideas the more we all grow.
When I was a young boy, I would often feel the sting of my father’s criticism. As a highly sensitive male (HSM), I would always take to heart his feedback and retreat to my room. No matter how hard I tried to please him, I would always find that there was something else that I could have done to improve or performed better in his eyes. It was a painful lesson I learned young, that sometimes you just can’t please everyone. Later in life, I recognized that my father was an HSM as well. Like many men of his generation, he tried to bury that fact in by not acknowledging those characteristics in himself that he saw in me. His answer was to force me to take the same route he had, which was a denial of his sensitivity.
As I grew older, I rebelled against him. It was fashionable and trendy at that time to rebel against your parents and I fell in line. We often had tense moments, I began to loathe being around him, and then abruptly, he died. I never got that opportunity to explore with him our HSP characteristics – an opportunity that would; I believe, have bridged the gap between us. His criticism still stings to this day.
This week, I’d like to discuss the receiving and giving of criticism for HSMs. Highly sensitive people are often criticized for their perceived hypersensitivity to criticism and are often accused of this primarily from people who are not very sensitive or empathetic. This is often compounded by HSPs self-admitting to being overly sensitive to harsh or brash criticism. The truth is we as HSPs do internalize criticism and become our own worst critics.
Highly sensitive people tend to have an intuitive understanding of where we are in our world, a kind of situational orientation, provided in large part by our greater sense of ourselves and the environment. We tend to overanalyze our situation, and in some cases, I believe we assume that we are right and correct because of this analysis. It’s almost a hidden agenda for us because we feel we can control the environment because we have done so much internally to analyze and prepare for it.
When we are criticized, especially unexpectedly, we tend to overcorrect because we have overthought the criticism. In other words, we don’t look for the criticism as feedback, but rather and sometimes harshly, internalize the delivery of the criticism and overlook the message. With that in mind, many HSPs tend to people please in order to avoid criticism. We quickly learn the expectations of the critic and modify our behavior to avoid the causes of their criticism. When we don’t take this tact, we often find that the external criticism coupled with our own internal criticism overwhelms us with emotion. This leads to defensiveness, withdrawal or shutting down.
When defensiveness becomes the regular coping strategy, an almost narcissistic attitude develops that we are not at fault, but rather the critic is faulty in their analysis. The walls go up and productive communication shuts down. When ego gets involved, we like most people, do not want to feel that we should be submissive to other’s critiques or if the criticism is harsh or unfounded to the devaluation of our ego. As Dr. Steven Stosny says, “the valued self, cooperates, the devalued self, resists”.
Criticism takes many forms and the deliveries reflect that. The criticism that goes wrong and fails to connect, often focuses on character and not behavior and is filled with blame. When criticism is not focused on improvement and is presented in an unconstructive manner, it is likely not to be received well. The realization by the critic and their subject that there very seldom is one absolutely correct way to do something and that the critical offering is to suggest an alternative for improvement, make the discussion about the suggestion more palatable to the person getting the feedback. This is especially true for highly sensitive people.
The reaction of oversensitivity to criticism may be learned from childhood. The childhood environment whether over critical or even non-critical can influence the child’s ability to receive criticism later in life. Oversensitivity to criticism may have roots in narcissism, perfectionism or obsessiveness. All of these traits may have been learned at the direction of the parents. If you compound the sensitive nature of HSPs with the childhood environment that may create a hypersensitivity to criticism it’s easy to see how constructive feedback or harsh attacks can be lumped together and then avoided.
HSPs tend to ruminate over conflict and this can lock us into not releasing the criticism. Releasing the criticism is like unwrapping the package and then discarding the package and keeping the gift. We tend to focus too much on the package and forget that the gift is the prize, not the wrapping. We tend to avoid conflict, which would include criticism because of some inherent feelings of vulnerability over differing opinions or just the risk and fears of disagreement. When receiving criticism we need clarification of the criticism to help us remain authentic and in preserving our sense of validation. We tend to sometimes overlook the facts and focus on the emotions involved, which attaches us too much to the suggested outcome instead of regarding it as a possibility for consideration. Research suggests that there is a correlation between our hypersensitivity to criticism and our perception of negative bias towards criticism.
Many HSMs compartmentalize feelings to avoid overwhelm. Our handling of criticism falls into this category. Sometimes delayed reactions occur as a result of bottling up the emotion, leading to withdrawal, anger or retaliation. The key to handling criticism is to remain calm, that is to say, keep the emotion objective with self-regulation of a peaceful internal state. This takes practice. Meditation, exercise, being out in nature, following a spiritual practice, Yoga, Tai-Chi or doing brain training will help aid in being able to conjure this state when needed. Your reaction to criticism is by now automatic and through mindful awareness, you can begin to control the reaction.
As males do we need to find better ways to handle criticism? Yes. Part of the problem is that many people who are in positions to critique others are miserable at offering feedback. To the larger, non-HSP population, criticism may only be a mere annoyance, but to many HSMs, it’s a personal affront. I do not think that in any way, HSPs are not capable of handling criticism in the spirit in which it is given. Yes, we tend to over sensationalize some of it, but truthfully, if given in the spirit of helping us improve, I certainly think we can handle it even if at first, we don’t agree with it. Part of what we need to do is help educate those around us, with suggestions on how to best offer us feedback. If the idea behind the criticism is to affect change, then certainly those in positions on offering us criticism should be open to criticism of their feedback.
We as humans are self-correcting organisms. As a species, we have the ability to offer correction advice to each other for the overall preservation of the group. It’s going to happen, wanted or not. In today’s online environment with social media being what it is, we are experiencing emboldened criticism of each other, some merited, some unmerited. Some of this criticism will sting and avoidance of it is impossible. The only thing we can do is to control our reaction to this criticism and realize that sometimes there is a kernel of truth and opportunity in every criticism. All feedback is good feedback. Even the harshest and most insensitive means that at some level you have affected someone else in such a way that has caused them to react to you. You are not a shadow; you live life in the open. That is a good thing.
Here are some tips for handling criticism:
Bill Allen lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.